Since taking over as interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres in February, Ron Rolston has basically been living out of a suitcase and learning on the fly.
The most enjoyable part of it all for the 46-year-old Rolston is dealing with the challenges. He's never backed down from one and isn't about to start now that he's been given such a prestigious opportunity in the National Hockey League.
"I enjoy coming to the rink on a daily basis and getting better," Rolston told NHL.com. "I know there will be speed bumps and we'll have ups and downs, but you deal with it and move on."
It certainly wasn't the easiest position for Rolston to walk into. Not only did he replace a legend behind the Sabres bench in Lindy Ruff, but he acquired a team that had just six victories in its opening 17 games.
"For so long, you had Lindy Ruff in there and I feel Lindy did a heck of a job, but now Ron is not only trying to learn the NHL, but the players are trying to learn him," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com.
In 16 games since taking over behind the bench, Rolston has had two days off twice and three days off once between games. He's guided the Sabres to a 7-6-3 mark over that stretch.
"The biggest thing with the Sabres that I've noticed is they're competitive and it appears as though the players are responding to him," Button said. "Ronny is a very good communicator and in terms of explaining to players what he expects of each of them. Conversely, if he's not getting what he expects and that player doesn't turn it around, he might take you out of the lineup."
Let's not forget, in his first season as coach of the Sabres back in 1997-98, Ruff sported a 5-8-4 mark after 17 games. The Sabres would finish that season 36-29-17 and reach the Eastern Conference Finals before dropping a six-game series to the Washington Capitals.
"More than anything, what's happening is I'm feeling more comfortable as we go on because we're starting to have some repeat games," Rolston said. "So now I know a little bit more about teams as we move forward in the schedule. That's getting better, but any job you take, there's challenges."
Sabres forward Nathan Gerbe was familiar with Rolston's coaching style long before he came aboard.
"I had Ron in Ann Arbor [with the U.S. National Team Development Program] and in the World Juniors, so I kind of knew what to expect and what he was all about," Gerbe told NHL.com. "He brings a lot of knowledge and good ways of teaching. He's positive in his teaching and not critical. He'll be hard at times, but he's done a good job at teaching us ways in which we can get there and be better."
Rolston spent seven years at the USNTDP, and won three gold medals and a silver medal in four tournaments as head coach at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
"The game is so fast today, you have split seconds to make a decision, so if you see something, you have to go with it," said Gerbe, who had Rolston as coach in 2003-04 with the USNTDP. "Those are the situations that Ron wants to teach to his players. What is the best decision in this scenario? What is the best way to protect, and what can we sacrifice in order to make that happen?"
Rolston spends plenty of time making sure his players know exactly what to do and how to react in different situations. He's not only held players accountable for remaining sharp out of their own zone, but making certain execution and passing remain a high priority.
"One of the things you learn from coaching in the American Hockey League and the NTDP is that players are at different stages of development, so you constantly have to be communicating with them," Button said. "I think Ronny was already in a mode of doing that when he came aboard as the interim coach with the Sabres.
"A lot of people think that NHL players don't need as much communication with their coach [as the AHL players], but I can tell you NHL players need it just as much."
Steve Ott, who was traded to Buffalo last summer, said Rolston is changing the culture in the locker room.
"Ron really preaches what it's going to take to be better," Ott told NHL.com. "He wants us to continue to get better daily, and he's changed the culture in the sense that we've gotten better every day in sticking with the right way to play the game."
Despite that fact, Rolston admits that breaking old habits isn't easy, and players will generally resort back to the way things were whenever a tenuous situation rears its ugly head. He does like the team's resiliency, however, which is a sure sign that his positive message is getting across.
"We had a lot of issues in our defensive zone early on, and lot of guys weren't sticking with it," Ott said. "I thought a big factor was [Rolston] consistently teaching us the right way to play the game, and I really think I've seen a good transition with him behind the bench."
That's one of the reasons Rolston was hired to coach Buffalo's AHL affiliate in Rochester beginning in 2011-12. He put together a 63-44-17 ledger with the Americans before getting the call from Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier.
"One of the biggest things you have to do as a coach is have confidence in your abilities," Button said. "You have to have the courage to make the moves that will help the team succeed, and Ron has that in him."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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